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International students share their experiences

Laura McCrystal | Thursday, September 16, 2010

When Yi Fang came from Beijing to begin Notre Dame Law School in 2008, she was constantly exhausted after a day spent speaking English and trying to understand a new culture.

“People figure because I speak English so well, I must know the culture already. But that’s totally not true,” Fang said. “I actually suffered from culture shock quite a lot.”

Fang, a third-year law student and assistant rector in McGlinn Hall, said she now realizes that her experience is typical for international students.

This year, 276 new, University-sponsored international students entered Notre Dame, making it the largest incoming class of international students in recent memory, according to McKenna Pencak, assistant director of communications and outreach for International Student Services and Activities. In 2009, around 250 new international students entered the University.

“In comparison to last year, there has been an increase,” Pencak said. “Undergraduate admissions is strongly trying to recruit international students.”

These 276 students represent 60 countries, Pencak said. Eighty-nine of these new students are undergraduates.

Pencak said the University is specifically recruiting in Asia and Latin America. The largest group of students this year came from China.

Once international students arrive at Notre Dame, Pencak said many of them experience the culture shock Fang described. To better aid the adjustment period, International Student Services and Activities held a two-and-a-half day international student orientation for the first time this fall, compared to the one-day program it hosted in past years.

Pencak said the orientation included mandatory workshops, which covered topics such as maintaining immigration status and health care and optional workshops ranging from “Catholicism 101” to American culture.

“Many students experience culture shock, and we can provide them resources to work through that … but it’s very different for every student,” Pencak said.  

Sophomore Ava Lee, who is South Korean and went to middle school and high school in Shanghai, said she did not experience culture shock when she came to Notre Dame. She said the American students whom she met, however, were shocked to meet her — she spoke perfect English and decided to attend an American university, despite never having lived in the United States.

“I knew I would have to experience some changes coming here, so I was prepared for that, but I don’t think I had a major culture shock,” Lee said. “I think people had culture shock when they met me.”

Lee said she looked at other American universities, but chose Notre Dame for its strong business school and also for its lack of diversity.

“I also thought it might be interesting to come to a school where diversity might not be as high,” she said.

Fang, on the other hand, visited the counseling center during her second year to discuss her culture shock. She said the counselor showed her a chart with a curve outlining the stages of adjustment for international students.

“I can actually identify myself with each stage of that curve,” Fang said. “Because Notre Dame is a very supporting environment … once [students] stick through the bottom tier, their spirit goes up and they are able to find their own identity in this new environment.”

Culture shock is similar to the adjustment of undergraduate freshmen to college life, Fang said. In her role as an assistant rector, her personal experience made it easy to relate to undergraduates. She also said the position allowed her to understand the unique culture of Notre Dame.

“The spirit of Notre Dame lies in the undergrad culture, so I really wanted to get to know where I am calling home,” she said.

Lee also had the opportunity to share her experiences as an international student. Over the summer she had an internship through the Office of Undergraduate Admissions and Student International Business Council to promote Notre Dame in Asia.

She traveled to high schools telling students and principals about the University, which she said is not as well known to Asian as other highly-ranked American universities.

Lee said even though she did not feel homesick during her freshman year, the international student experience at Notre Dame is different from other universities. For example, she had to learn about the game of football and adjust to life outside a big city. While her friends who also came to school in the U.S. did not have to make these same transitions, Lee said the Notre Dame environment is perfect for her.

“I actually love it here because I think it’s a good balance between going back home … and coming here, where I can actually focus and study,” she said.